Stephen Amell, Alexander Ludwig hyped Comic-Con wrestling crowd for Heels

The 2021 San Diego Comic-Con started with a panel on Heels, which presents battling fans and newbies alike to the world of the DWL, the Duffy Fumbling League. Produced and executive produced by Loki’s Michael Waldron — with Mike O’Malley at the helm as showrunner — Starz’s huge summer season series is a household drama set through the lens of the world of town, independent expert fumbling. Stephen Amell (Arrow) and Alexander Ludwig (Vikings) star as Jack and Ace Spade, 2 siblings who run the DWL while feuding with each other both inside and beyond the fumbling ring. When the bell rings, Jack is the heel and Ace is the face (the previously mentioned hero). When the lights are off and they’re outside the square circle, the functions aren’t precisely the very same.

Signing Up With Waldron, O’Malley, Amell, and Ludwig at the SDCC panel were the remainder of the Heel cast: Alison Luff, who plays Staci Spade, Jack’s spouse, who has a hard time with the stress the DWL places on their household; Mary McCormack, who plays Willie Day, Jack’s company partner and the brains of the DWL operation; Kelli Berglund, who plays Crystal Tyler, Ace’s valet and love interest; Allen Maldonado, who plays Rooster Robbins, a really gifted wrestler who’s been waiting a really long time to get his huge break; James Harrison, who plays Armageddon, a journeyman wrestler; and Chris Bauer as Wild Costs Hancock, a previous fumbling star who turned up in the DWL, got huge, and is now a professional fumbling scout.

Early in the panel, Otterson assessed the cast’s level of expert fumbling love and even understanding prior to the program, jokingly asking who the greatest fumbling fan of the group was entering this program, “and why was it Stephen?” Amell, obviously, equated that love into fumbling in a tag group match at WWE’s SummerSlam pay-per-view in 2015, followed by a couple more matches for the smaller sized fumbling promo Ring of Honor. Maldonado mentioned his youth love of fumbling and how that equated into his efficiency on the program. “Well, it was me living out every eight-year-old fantasy that I had in the living room, wrestling, jumping off the couches—just kind of reliving that moment anytime I got into any particular match or any stunts or anything,” stated Maldonado. “I always thought to myself, the eight-year-old Allen, ‘Make him proud.’ This is me having the opportunity to live out what I fantasized as a kid. So that was really what was special as a wrestling fan and now being a part of this show.”

Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker) vs Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado) in Heels

Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado) lets loose on Hairpin (Trey Tucker)
Image: Starz

However Bauer’s love of expert fumbling — which permitted him to draw from Ric Style, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Terry Funk, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts for the function of Wild Costs — particularly equated into the kind of world Heels exists in, as a fan of “the regions and the smaller, sort of indy, outfits,” like the DWL in Heels. Upon conference Waldron for the very first time, Bauer discussed, “We talked about the show for about a minute and then the rest of breakfast was about wrestlers and indy wrestling. And it really got me excited, ‘cause he knew what he was talking about.”

That understanding of expert fumbling and the independent circuit is why Waldron picked to set and focus Heels on the planet of a town fumbling league, in spite of the reality that the majority of people’s minds go to juggernauts like WWE, and even a newbie like AEW, when it concerns expert fumbling.

“I think that even the big promotions like WWE ultimately had humble beginnings before it grew into an empire. It was a bunch of regional promotions that were ultimately unified under Vince McMahon and everything,” discussed Waldron. “It seems impossible, the idea of building a modern wrestling empire now. And because that seems impossible, I think that makes it an exciting kind of story to watch. That’s what Jack and what our characters are struggling up against—they’ve got big dreams that seem impossible, but they’re not daunted by those odds. And so, really, starting them at the bottom of the ladder and giving the audience the chance to watch them climb that ladder, I think is really fun.”

Bauer likewise ultimately estimated his preferred line as Wild Costs (a character who can be referred to as “a lot”): “It’s all a ring, sweetheart.” He elaborated, “It is the metaphor for life, in terms of the DNA of wrestling. It is so performative. What’s taking place in that squared circle is a version of the world that’s idealized or simplified or politicized. … The DNA of the show is so authentic because of where Michael [Waldron] comes from. His own personal experience of this world as a fan.”

O’Malley later on went on to elaborate why a story about such a small promo still produces something so, in a sense, huge.

“What [Waldron’s] revealing and what these stars have actually represented with these characters are that individuals remain in their lives, they have innovative impulses, they have things that they wish to do. They have aspirations, they have yearning, and they wish to go do those things. And even if it doesn’t appear like it can be as huge as something like the WWE, to them, in this town — similar to anyone who’s in a play at a town, at a regional theatre, or remains in a band that is going and playing their very first program or their tenth program at a regional music location —the technique that they give their work has amazing effort and enthusiasm [… And so, I think what’s interesting about this story that Michael [Waldron]’s developed is that you have these characters who wish to do these things. Yes, they have aspirations to perhaps take it someplace else, however their job is to make it as terrific as they can and to be so enthusiastic about what they’re doing, today.

“And sometimes, when you’re super focused on what it is you’re trying to create and do, that can take your attention away from other things that you should be doing. Being a good father, being a good mother, being a good husband, being a good wife, being a good friend. Because you’re so caught up in trying to make something out of your life, trying to make it mean something. And make it seem bigger. And make it seem all worth the struggle. So, how those two things intertwine, that’s what I think is so rich about this show.”

Like the cast of RADIANCE prior to them, the cast of Heels grew a gratitude for the physical toll expert wrestlers need to go through — and they needed to go through in their own training. “To be totally honest with you, I think it was a little bit easier for me, because I had played professional football for 15 or 16 years,” discussed Harrison, a two-time Super Bowl champ. “The thing about wrestling is, a lotta people wanna say it’s fake. You know about the outcome, but the actual, physical nature of hitting the mat and getting up and hitting that mat again, and making sure that you don’t get hit the wrong way… The physical nature of it is real. It’s 100% real.”

Amell followed up, “It’s not jumping off your couch onto your cushions. It’s a wooden board, and it gives a little bit in the middle — and not so much at the edge. Ask my back.”

Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig), Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund) in the ring in Heels

Ace and Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund) buzz up the crowd
Image: Starz

“Just the training in general, and a glimpse into that whole world — of just fitness and challenging your body — was such a new thing for me,” Berglund included. “I have so much respect for people that do this. I mean, just the fitness side is one thing, but also, the wrestling is not as easy as it looks. But these people are so great at making it look easy.”

“The biggest misconception I had going into it is just how much abuse these people take on a regular basis,” Ludwig stated. Calling it a “a full-on stunt performance,” he continued, “When you hit the mat, you hit the mat. These guys use and abuse their bodies on a regular basis, with no help from anyone else. They’re traveling carnies. I mean, it is insane what they put themselves through. And it was so important to us that we did that justice. And so much so, to our detriment a little bit — there were some big injuries on this.”

The cast and executive manufacturers likewise talked a bit about the element of Heels that concentrates on ladies existing in a male-dominated market, in the kind of McCormack, Berglund, and Luff’s characters. McCormack’s Willie and Berglund’s Crystal discover themselves in rather opposing positions within the fumbling world, while Luff’s Staci needs to deal with the concerns that that world has actually developed for her household (both her hubby and her mess of a brother-in-law).

“I love this script and I was drawn to it,” stated Luff, “because I feel like all the women in this world are kind of the underbelly of how this community and how these people in this industry work. Without Stacei, Jack wouldn’t be able to function on the level that he functions. Without Willie, the DWL would not function. And without Crystal, Ace would have zero confidence. And it just wouldn’t function in the same way. I’m drawn to the fact that all the women are kind of the unsung heroes of it, in this world, and kind of the heroes that don’t wear the capes.”

At the center of Heels is the competition in between siblings Jack and Ace Spade. Amell explains Jack as “his brother’s keeper,” while Ludwig explains Ace as “a frickin’ mess.” “There is real love there,” the star stated. “But they’re overshadowed by this immense trauma that they’ve experienced in their father’s death. And they’re trying to work through it the best they can.” However according to Amell, “It gets worse before it gets better.”

Which is why if there’s one program that Heels is possibly most equivalent to, according to McCormack, it’s Friday Night Lights. “When I read the script and sort of met the world, I just was so taken with it in the way that I was taken with Friday Night Lights, similarly,” she discussed. “It felt like wrestling was a way into this family drama. And for me, that was really exciting. I remember when my husband—he was a huge Friday Night Lights fan — said, ‘Oh, you have to watch it. You have to watch it. You have to watch it.’ And I was so annoyed because I was like, ‘I don’t care about football.’ … He said, ‘Please just watch one. And if you don’t want to watch anymore, you can get out.’ And then I watched one and became, like, a shut-in. I stopped parenting and seeing people and all that. And I hope that’s what people feel like with this show, because I certainly have no experience with the wrestling world and I’m in. I mean, I’m in on all these characters and their relationships and their struggles, and that’s just what good dramatic writing is like. And so I’m excited about all kinds of people watching this show, for that reason.”

Heels premieres Sunday, August 15 (at 9 p.m. ET) on Starz.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.